Having dealt with financial hardships and food insecurity himself, Elias Morales could easily identify with the students he interviewed for a project that provided 2,300 packets of trail mix to the Cal Poly Food Pantry.
“Though not everyone I interviewed labeled themselves as having ‘food insecurity,’ they did talk about having to be cautious on what and where they spend their money, especially when it comes to food,” said the industrial and manufacturing engineering student. “Unlike other students, they were not able to dine off campus often, and some of them even had to resort to government aid, such as EBT cards, or school resources like the food pantry.”
The trail mix project, conducted in three sections of an IME 101 class, originated with Dan Nathan-Roberts, who incorporated trail mix donations into his Work Measurement and Work Design course at San Jose State. There, students helped their peers while also learning to design, produce, test and improve assembly methods for trail mix.
After interacting with Nathan-Roberts, two members of Cal Poly’s IME faculty decided to incorporate it into their coursework, using money from the department’s discretionary fund.
“The students had the opportunity to see the full product and process life cycle,” said Jill Speece, a lecturer who taught the course, along with Professor Liz Thompson. “They had to work cross-functionally — each student was assigned to a specific team — and learn how to make good decisions with competing objectives and limited information.”
The project, Thompson said, mirrored the type of challenges students will eventually face in the workplace.
“Setting up an assembly line is definitely traditional industrial engineering and manufacturing engineering work,” she said. “All three sections developed different solutions and used their creativity.”
The project began with data collection, through interviews with 30 students on campus.
Morales is a part of the Cal Poly Scholars program, which seeks and supports high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. His interviews included students from the Cal Poly Scholars community.
“The one thing that everyone mentioned in these interviews — and in my opinion, the most important thing to keep in mind — is the importance of knowing what resources you have available to you,” Morales said.
While the prevalence of food insecurity didn’t surprise Morales, others had been unaware of the challenge.
“One of my students said he found out his roommate had been food insecure,” Thompson said. “He communicated that this made the project more meaningful for him.”
Food insecurity on college campuses is actually an issue nationwide. On California State University’s 23 campuses, food insecurity affects 41.6 percent of students, according to a 2018 survey. Of those surveyed, 22 percent reported “very low food security.”
Once the teams had gathered data, they were assigned to eight teams that would handle specific functions, including assembly process definition, safety and quality, and distribution. Those groups collaborated, working on budgets, ordering materials, production schedules and assembly line efficiency.
“Jill and I recently talked about how things that went wrong were incredible learning opportunities,” Thompson said. “For instance, the raw materials were delayed in receiving the order, which allowed us to talk about supply chain issues that are also in the news now.”
During the 10th week of class, the students packaged, labeled and sealed the trail mix packets using an assembly line it had designed. While the packets were successfully delivered, the teams did encounter typical engineering snafus.
Kristen Ho, another student, said the class demonstrated the many small factors that go into creating a product.
“Simple things, like the difficulty of opening a bag with gloves, are often overlooked,” she said. “Therefore, it will be useful in my career to consider the different factors that can possibly affect the process of making something.”
Morales said the class exceeded his expectations.
“It was fun and useful,” he said. “Planning every single step, managing the time, the finances, communicating with people, growing as a leader, solving problems, thinking of ideas to make the process more efficient — they’re all skills future employers are looking for.”
The project encouraged him to apply to summer internships, he said. And, he said, the result was rewarding.
“It was an amazing feeling to hear that many of my friends who visit the Cal Poly food pantry to get their groceries tried our trail mixes and really enjoyed it,” he said.
Given the success of the project, the department is seeking donations for future projects assisting the food pantry.
“This will now be incorporated into the IME 101 class for the foreseeable future,” Speece said.